The Shaftesbury Theatre is both beautiful and historic, and a worthy presenter of a show that is beautiful in a very different way.
Memphis is a musical and a memorable and striking one. It is set in an era of segregation, overt racism, poverty, and dreams. The story line is perennial and simple but with a sting – boy meets girl, boy loses girl. The main protagonists are Huey Calhoun and Felicia Farrell, racism and music. These add up to be more than the sum of their component parts.
Huey is a poor, white, ill-educated clown of a chap who has a passion for music – Black music. That’s not a claim to fame these days but we are talking 1950s USA, and the South at that! These were troubled times where even music had to know its place. He was on a mission to popularise R&B and bring it to a wider audience.
A Beale Street club offers Huey a chance to immerse himself, or almost, in black musical culture. And there was a young black singer called Felicia who stole his heart but also showed him the brutality and injustice of Memphis society. Huey could be musically black whenever he wanted, but she was black every moment, noted Felicia. There were realities to be faced.
Memphis is colourful, vibrant and a little shocking, particularly to younger members of the theatre audience who have never actually heard the N-word in such a public forum. There was an audible gasp from those who had not grasped the aforementioned realities of life for non-whites – a few gritty moments that were completely in context. There is a hard-hitting story here which supports some cracking good songs.
Beverley Knight captivates from the first moment. In my humble opinion, and I am no expert, she is the most polished and accomplished soul singer around. She has the voice, for sure, but she has charm, elegance and beauty. One warms to her character, Felicia, who has talent, humour and ambition.
From 6 July 2015 the role of Huey Calhoun is played by Matt Cardle. He has built himself a solid reputation since his success with X-Factor. He brings sensitivity and credibility to his role along with his powerful voice, energy and nifty moves. A great choice for the part and for the partnership with Ms Knight, that makes Memphis so memorable.
There are other heroes in Memphis. The dancers are dazzling and the musicians are first-rate. Don’t rush off after the stars have taken their bows: stay until the music is really over and give those musicians some applause too. Some nice bits of sax playing in the last few minutes before the curtain falls.
Go to Memphis. I highly recommend this show for its social comment, its musical score and its originality. It’s a fun show dealing with serious issues and it’s a balance that it thoughtfully maintains. It’s a moving story with songs that have all the style of 50s R&B.
Memphis at the Shaftesbury Theatre
210 Shaftesbury Avenue
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Theatre review by Chrissie Walker © 2018